What makes a good lesson?

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When it comes to the secrets to a great lesson, Marion Gibbs has witnessed countless fads and fashions. She for one has never taught the same lesson twice.

It was interesting to read lately that HMCI has advised Ofsted inspectors not to assume that lessons where teachers talk rather a lot are necessarily in need of improvement and that not every lesson has to include independent learning or group work. In my humble opinion, there has been far too much dogma over the years about what makes a good lesson and yet it is all too obvious that “one size does not fit all”.

I have been teaching for a very long time, undoubtedly since before many readers were even born, but I can honestly say that I have never taught exactly the same lesson twice. I might have covered most of the same material in lessons with different classes over the years, but as the pupils were different each time, the lessons were not identical.

As a teacher, I respond to my pupils and answer their questions and follow up on their points and repeat and rephrase as needed. Is not that what teaching is all about – taking into account and responding to the needs of the learners? 

However, during that same long period I have seen many different “fashions” come and go: pupils facing the front in rows; pupils grouped round smaller tables; the teacher as “facilitator” with pupils working at their own pace on computerised programmes; every lesson must start with objectives written on the right-hand side (or was it the left?) of the board; every lesson must begin with a starter and end with a plenary; thinking hats; playing music at the start or even throughout every lesson; no hands-up; pupils as teachers for at least a segment of the lesson; mixed-ability teaching in every subject; setting in most subjects – I could go on, but will spare you.

It seems to me that lessons will inevitably vary according to the subject and topic being taught and the age and range of ability of the pupils, but the basic ingredients of a successful lesson must surely be that the pupils learn something relevant (and correctly, rather than being given wrong information). 

This may be something which they encounter for the first time or they may be consolidating their existing understanding, skills or knowledge. Their learning needs to take place in an atmosphere of respect, both for the teacher and for other pupils, and should be enjoyable and interesting, leaving the pupils with a desire to learn more. 

I am sure all readers will have their own views on this – which just shows how silly it is to try to invent a “one size fits all” recipe for a successful lesson.

Teachers are often criticised in the media, but I am certain that the vast majority of our profession are highly motivated and skilled and have the best interests of their pupils at heart.

As part of a London Schools Excellence Fund Project, I have been fortunate to have spent four separate days recently working with teachers from a variety of secondary schools, both state and independent, across south London, one was with English teachers, one languages, one chemistry and one physics. It was such a pleasure to see these teachers, most of whom had never previously met, working together, discussing the challenges of teaching their subjects and planning to design new resources and ways of teaching particular topics. 

Their enthusiasm was palpable. Some discussed using silent film clips to which pupils could write dialogue, some suggested that their pupils should video themselves explaining a certain topic to others or conducting an experiment, some focused on reading for meaning or analysis of data, some on challenging quizzes or games, some on “flipped lessons”, to name but a few.

What was very obvious was the amount of thought, inspiration and effort which these teachers put into lesson planning, regardless of the sector in which they taught. “Berlin walls” were certainly not in evidence, but shared passion for their subject and for helping young people to learn certainly were. All good news – so undoubtedly a story that will not hit the headlines in the mainstream media!

  • Marion Gibbs is head of James Allen’s Girls’ School in south London.

 


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